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Congress Bracing for Trump’s Decision on the Iran Nuclear Deal

President Donald Trump is expected to announce Thursday that Iran is not complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama to curb Iranian nuclear activities. Trump’s decision would trigger a 60-day deadline for Congress to set the next steps in dealing with Tehran. VOA’s Congressional reporter Katherine Gypson has more on why the president’s decision would put Capitol Hill lawmakers in a tough position.

Cross Continent Solar Car Race Sets Grueling Pace

Every two years, Australia holds the World Solar Challenge. It is a grueling 3-thousand kilometer race across the Australian outback in cars powered only by the sun. Everyone from high school engineers to corporate sponsored giants is free to compete, and every year the cars go farther, and faster than before. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Somali Musician, Kept from US Internship, Blames Trump Travel Ban

The Somali musician Hassan-Nour Sayid — known by his stage name, Aar Maanta — and his band, the Urban Nomads, were supposed to be in Minnesota last week, where they were to kick off a monthlong internship of performances and workshops set up through the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

Visa delays, however, have led to the cancellation of the event, and Aar told VOA he thinks it is because the Trump administration has delayed his visa to come to the U.S. because he is Muslim and Somali.

“After months of planning these peaceful events, I was expecting only the inevitable reasons could bring them to a disappointing halt, but now I think it is because of being Muslim and Somali. Why I was discriminated and singled out in the visa process,” Aar told VOA Somali. “I blame the current U.S. government.”

Dual citizenship

Aar is a respected and well-known band leader, with dual citizenship in Somalia and Britain, though he says these qualifications did not help him get a U.S. visa “easily and on time.”

“My four other colleagues — musicians in the band — are Italian, French, Nepalese-Scottish and British-Caribbean, and all received their visas with no trouble. Only me. I think it is because I am the band’s sole Somali and Muslim member,” he said.

He said his passport was held by the U.S. consulate, and he was told his application was placed under “additional administrative processing.”

In an email, a State Department official told VOA they were not able to discuss individual visas.

“Since visa records are confidential under the Immigration and Nationality Act, we are not able to discuss individual visa cases. We would also note that visa applications do not include questions pertaining to religious identity/affiliation. U.S. immigration law does not contain visa ineligibilities based on religious identity/affiliation,” the official wrote.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who on Tuesday addressed a question by VOA on a visa denial to the ousted Venezuela attorney general, said visa applications are confidential under federal law.

“So visa applications — and those are confidential, so no matter who it is or what the cause is, that’s something that we don’t comment on. I think we’ve talked about that before. They’re confidential under a federal law,” Nauert said.

Musician

Aar — a Somali singer, songwriter, actor, composer, instrumentalist and music producer — moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, on the eve of the civil war in Somalia. He has lived there since, and has received his British citizenship. But he says he always realized that holding a Western passport would not change “his true identity.”

“I was always telling my Somali fans that it does not matter whether you have a British passport or American passport or the passport of any other Western country, you will always and forever remain Somali,” he said.

Under a revised travel order signed last month by President Donald Trump, travelers to the United States from eight countries face new restrictions, which take effect Oct. 18. The new executive order will affect citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela.

The new restrictions ban Somali immigrants from entry to the U.S., according to immigration attorneys. However, non-immigrants who are seeking business or tourist visas, such as Aar, must undergo additional screening measures.

According to tour organizers, the Urban Nomads have worked with the Cedar Cultural Center twice before, where they performed live music, led songwriting and held poetry workshops for young people. During the planned trip, though, the band would have extended its performances outside the metro area, carrying a message of unity for Somali-American communities.

Surprised by visa challenges

In a written statement, Fadumo Ibrahim, the program’s manager at the Cedar Cultural Center, said she was surprised by the visa challenges the musician faced, given his work with the center in the past.

“This case is a concrete example of how travel restrictions and the travel ban limit artistic voices and freedom,” Ibrahim said. “While it’s obviously important for the artists, it’s equally important for the community who had been anticipating this residency.

“Aar Maanta’s visit to Minnesota would have brought hope and positivity to the Somali and larger communities here at a time when we all really need it,” she said.

Midnimo, the Somali word for “unity,” is a program that features Somali artists from Minnesota and around the world in residencies and events that increase understanding of Somali culture through music.

The center said, “Midnimo is reviving and preserving Somalia’s rich musical traditions while fostering social connections between generations and cultures in the heart of the largest Somali diaspora in North America.”

VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributes to the story.

Trump Touts Tax Reform, Saying Typical Household Would Get ‘$4,000 Pay Raise’

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday promised Americans they are “going to have so much money to spend” if lawmakers approve his tax reform plan.  

Trump, in an airport hangar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told a crowd of truckers that the typical American household would get “a $4,000 pay raise” with the changes he wants, although economists say that benefit would only materialize over eight years, at a rate of about $500 annually.

Trump’s speech to hundreds of truck drivers — the most common job in more than half of the country’s 50 states —- was intended to counter the views of independent analysts that the Republican tax blueprint would mostly benefit the highest income earners. These analysts contend that at least some middle-income taxpayers would pay more, not less, to the government under Trump’s proposal.

The president, in his Pennsylvania speech, did not go into detail of how his plan would affect the wealthy. He said that his rich friends have been telling him they do not want anything from his proposal and are asking him “to give it to the middle class.”

White House officials say the plan would double the standard deduction so that more income is taxed at zero percent; the first $12,000 of income for individuals and $24,000 for married couples would be tax-free, and the seven existing income tax brackets for taxable income would be consolidated to three brackets: 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent.

The Republican-controlled Congress, however, has yet to determine at what levels of income the new rates would apply, leaving analysts to guess what effects the changes would have on any individual taxpayer.

“You better get it passed,” Trump said in a message to lawmakers.

 At least six members of Congress were in the audience.

Trump also wants to trim corporate taxes to further boost the U.S. economy, the world’s largest.

In his remarks, he also touted that since his election last November, the U.S. stock market has increased corporate values by $5.2 trillion and that unemployment is at its lowest point in 16 years.

The Trump administration, when it took office in January, predicted it would complete a tax overhaul by August, but now has its sights set on completing the reforms by the end of the year.

However, congressional tax-writing panels have yet to hold hearings and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have widely divergent views on what changes should be made.

Under some scenarios, the tax cuts could add to the country’s long-term debt of more than $20 trillion, which would be an outrage to many conservative Republican lawmakers. Democratic lawmakers are calling for tax changes to mostly benefit the country’s middle class and lowest-income taxpayers, not the wealthiest.  

“Democrats want to raise your taxes very, very substantially,” Trump declared in his speech, labeling the opposition party as obstructionists “who are not telling you the truth.”

Facebook Gets Real About Broadening Virtual Reality’s Appeal

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be realizing a sobering reality about virtual reality: His company’s Oculus headsets that send people into artificial worlds are too expensive and confining to appeal to the masses.

Zuckerberg on Wednesday revealed how Facebook intends to address that problem, unveiling a stand-alone headset that won’t require plugging in a smartphone or a cord tethering it to a personal computer like the Oculus Rift headset does.

“I am more committed than ever to the future of virtual reality,” Zuckerberg reassured a crowd of computer programmers in San Jose, California, for Oculus’ annual conference.

Facebook’s new headset, called Oculus Go, will cost $199 when it hits the market next year. That’s a big drop from the Rift, which originally sold for $599 and required a PC costing at least $500 to become immersed in virtual reality, or VR.

Recent discounts lowered the Rift’s price to $399 at various times during the summer, a markdown Oculus now says will be permanent.

“The strategy for Facebook is to make the onboarding to VR as easy and inexpensive as possible,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “And $199 is an inexpensive entry for a lot of people who are just starting out in VR. The problem is you will be spending that money on a device that only does VR and nothing else.”

Facebook didn’t provide any details on how the Oculus Go will work, but said it will include built-in headphones for audio and have a LCD display.

Other headsets

The Oculus Go will straddle the market between the Rift and the Samsung Gear, a $129 headset that runs on some of Samsung’s higher-priced phones. It will be able to run the same VR as the Samsung Gear, leading Blau to conclude the Go will rely on the same Android operating system as the Gear and likely include similar processors as Samsung phones.

The Gear competes against other headsets, such as Google’s $99 Daydream View, that require a smartphone. Google is also working on a stand-alone headset that won’t require a phone, but hasn’t specified when that device will be released or how much it will cost.

Zuckerberg promised the Oculus Go will be “the most accessible VR experience ever,” and help realize his new goal of having 1 billion people dwelling in virtual reality at some point in the future.

Facebook and other major technology companies such as Google and Microsoft that are betting on VR have a long way to go.

About 16 million head-mounted display devices were shipped in 2016, a number expected to rise to 22 million this year, according to the research firm Gartner Inc. Those figures include headsets for what is known as augmented reality.

Zuckerberg, though, remains convinced that VR will evolve into a technology that reshapes the way people interact and experience life, much like smartphones and social networks already have. His visions carry weight, largely because Facebook now has more than 2 billion users and plays an influential role in how people communicate.

But VR so far has been embraced mostly by video game lovers, despite Facebook’s efforts to bring the technology into the mainstream since buying Oculus for $2 billion three years ago.

Facebook has shaken up Oculus management team since then in a series of moves that included the departure of founder Palmer Luckey earlier this year.

Former Google executive Hugo Barra now oversees Facebook’s VR operations.

California Moves Toward Public Access for Self-driving Cars

California regulators took an important step Wednesday to clear the road for everyday people to get self-driving cars.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles published proposed rules that would govern the technology within California, where for several years manufacturers have been testing hundreds of prototypes on roads.

That testing requires a trained safety driver behind the wheel, just in case the onboard computers and sensors fail. Though companies are not ready to unleash the technology for regular drivers — most say it remains a few years away — the state expects to have a final regulatory framework in place by June.

That framework would let companies begin testing prototypes with neither steering wheels nor pedals — and indeed nobody at all inside. The public is unlikely to get that advanced version of the technology until several years after the deployment of cars that look and feel more like traditional, human-controlled vehicles.

Consumers probably won’t be able to walk into a dealership and buy a fully driverless vehicle next year. Major automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Ford, Nissan and Volvo have all said it will be closer to 2020 before those vehicles are available, and even then, they could be confined to ride-hailing fleets and other shared applications.

Tesla Inc. says the cars it’s making now have the hardware they need for full self-driving. The company is still testing the software and won’t make it available to owners without regulatory approval.

Still, Wednesday’s announcement puts California on the verge of finalizing rules for public access, which were due more than two years ago. The delay reflects both the developing nature of the technology as well as how the federal government — which is responsible for regulating the safety of the vehicles — has struggled to write its own rules.

Legislation intended to clear away federal regulations that could impede a new era of self-driving cars has moved quickly through Congress. The House has passed a bill that would permit automakers to seek exemptions to safety regulations, such as to make cars without a steering wheel, so they could sell hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars. A Senate committee approved a similar measure last week by a voice vote.

California’s proposed rules must still undergo a 15-day public comment period, which could result in further changes, and then a protracted review by other state attorneys. Department of Motor Vehicles attorney Brian Soublet told reporters that the rules should be final before June, if not before.

Trump Rejects Claim He Wanted Big Nuclear Expansion

President Donald Trump on Wednesday rejected as “pure fiction” an NBC News report that a few months ago he suggested a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and questioned whether it was time to revoke the network’s government license to operate.

Trump’s comments on the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, now at about 4,000 weapons, came at a Pentagon meeting with top military and national security officials in July, NBC said, citing the recollections of three people who were there. Trump was responding to a briefing slide charting the steady reduction in the size of the country’s stockpile since the 1960s and he indicated he wanted a bigger arsenal, the network said.

Officials at the meeting, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were reported to have voiced surprise at Trump’s suggestion and briefly explained the legal and practical restraints on a nuclear buildup, much of which is dictated by international arms control treaties. The officials told NBC that no U.S. nuclear buildup is planned.

As a candidate during his run for the White House, Trump was quoted as asking a foreign policy adviser what the point was of having nuclear capability if the U.S. did not use the weapons.

Currently, Trump is in the midst of two international disputes involving nuclear weapons. Trump is set this week to refuse certification that Iran is complying with an international pact to curb its international weapons development and has carried out an exchange of bellicose taunts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

It was soon after the Pentagon meeting in July that Tillerson described the U.S. leader’s intelligence in harsh terms, uttering an expletive and calling him a “moron,” according to U.S. news accounts. Tillerson has since said he is committed to his job as the top U.S. diplomat and working for Trump, but has not denied that he made the remark.

Trump suggested in recent days that he and Tillerson square off intellectually by each taking IQ tests, with the president saying he has no doubt that he would score higher. The White House said Tuesday that Trump’s remarks were meant as a joke.

In Twitter comments, Trump compared NBC’s reporting to that of CNN, the cable news network that has often drawn his ire after it aired stories he did not like.   

In the U.S., freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed. But over-the-air television networks like NBC are regulated by the government, while cable channels like CNN for the most part are not. 

Half of US, Japan Teens ‘Addicted’ to Smartphones

About half of teenagers in the United States and Japan say they are addicted to their smartphones.

University of Southern California (USC) researchers asked 1,200 Japanese about their use of electronic devices. The researchers are with the Walter Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Their findings were compared with an earlier study on digital media use among families in North America.

“Advances in digital media and mobile devices are changing the way we engage not only with the world around us, but also with the people who are the closest to us,” said Willow Bay, head of the Annenberg School.

The USC report finds that 50 percent of American teenagers and 45 percent of Japanese teens feel addicted to their mobile phones.

“This is a really big deal,” said James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that helped with the study. “Just think about it, 10 years ago we didn’t even have smart phones.”

Sixty-one percent of Japanese parents believe their children are addicted to the devices. That compares to 59 percent of the American parents who were asked.

Also, more than 1-in-3 Japanese parents feel they have grown dependent on electronic devices, compared to about 1-in-4 American parents.

Leaving your phone at home is ‘one of the worst things’

“Nowadays, one of the worst things that can happen to us is, like, ‘Oh, I left my phone at home,’” said Alissa Caldwell, a student at the American School in Tokyo. She spoke at the USC Global Conference 2017, which was held in Tokyo.

A majority of Japanese and American parents said their teenagers used mobile devices too much. But only 17 percent of Japanese teens agreed with that assessment. In the United States, 52 percent of teens said they are spending too much time on mobile devices.

Many respond immediately to messages

About 7-in-10 American teens said they felt a need to react quickly to mobile messages, compared to about half of Japanese teens.

In Japan, 38 percent of parents and 48 percent of teens look at and use their devices at least once an hour. In the United States, 69 percent of parents and 78 percent of teens say they use their devices every hour.

Naturally, that hourly usage stops when people are sleeping, the researchers said.

The devices are a greater cause of conflict among teens and parents in the United States than in Japan. One-in-3 U.S. families reported having an argument every day about mobile device use. Only about 1-in-6 Japanese families say they fight every day over mobile devices.

Care more about devices than your children?

But 20 percent of Japanese teens said they sometimes feel that their parents think their mobile device is more important than they are. The percentage of U.S. teens saying they feel this way is 6 percent.

In the United States, 15 percent of parents say their teens’ use of mobile devices worsens the family’s personal relationships. Eleven percent of teens feel their parents’ use of mobile devices is not good for their relationship.

The USC research was based on an April 2017 study of 600 Japanese parents and 600 Japanese teenagers. Opinions from American parents and teenagers were collected in a study done earlier by Common Sense Media.

Bay, the Annenberg School of Communications dean, said the research raises critical questions about the effect of digital devices on family life.

She said the cultural effects may differ from country to country, but “this is clearly a global issue.”

World Bank: Sub-Saharan Africa to Grow at Slower Rate This Year

 Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be 2.4 percent in 2017, the World Bank said on Wednesday, down from the 2.6 percent projected in April.

It said the downgrade was due to a number of reasons, including Nigeria’s failing to meet expectations but also broader conditions.

“Regional per capita output growth is forecast to be negative for the second consecutive year, while investment growth remains low, and productivity growth is falling,” it said.

Growth across the region, however, was seen rising 3.2 percent in 2018 and 3.5 percent in 2019, forecasts unchanged from earlier this year.

In its latest Africa Pulse report, the Bank said the region would be helped by better commodity prices. Sub-Saharan African economies have been hit by lower commodity prices which slowed growth in the last few years, cutting government revenues.

Albert Zeufack, World Bank chief economist for Africa, said the region’s growth recovery would partly be driven by the continent’s two largest economies — Nigeria and South Africa — exiting recession.

He said the two countries need “deeper reforms” to get back to pre-2014 levels of growth and their political uncertainty needs to be reined in. He said they make up about half of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP growth.

The World Bank said Nigeria’s economy, the largest in the continent, was expected to expand by 1 percent in 2017.

South Africa’s economy, hit by political worries, was expected to grow just 0.6 percent this year.